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The Christian Old Testament Canon

The Christian Old Testament has never been settled. To this day the vairous denominations still cannot agree as to what books make up the Old Testament. In other words, they could not agree which books were "inspired by the holy spirit" and which were simply inspired by the human spirit. This problem has long roots:
  • St. Jerome did not understand that the Jewish canon haphazard selection process and tried to persuade the Church to drop the Apocrypha.
  • There was no authoritative list since the beginning of Christendom on the extant of the canon. In fact there were many lists and many canons.
  • The current situation is no better. The Catholic, the Orthodox and the Protestant churches all disagree as to what constitute the Old Testament canon.
  • Looking inward into the New Testament (a favourite method among fundamentalist of establishing OT canonicty) does not help, for Jude include two references to non-canonical books, threating them as though he was quoting from scripture. We find a similar reference in the epistle to the Hebrews. Now if "inspired" books refered to non-canonical books as "inspired": what gives?

Saint Jerome and the Vulgate

Perhaps one of the most influential Church Fathers was Eusebius Hieronymous (c340-420), better known as Saint Jerome. Jerome was commissioned by Pope Damasus (304-384) to write an authoritative translation of the Bible into Latin. As part of his preparation, Jerome went to Palestine and studied Hebrew under the Jewish scholars. The Jewish scholars showed him their canon and Jerome, not knowing much about the background of their selection, was impressed with their arguments. It was Jerome who introduced the term apocrypha (Greek for "hidden") for the extra books in the Septuagint not included in the Hebrew canon. Jerome tried to persuade the Roman Church to reject the apocrypha but without any success. Jerome worked on the translation for fifteen years and finally produced the version known as the Vulgate (vulgata = Latin forwidespread). The Vulgate included the books from the Apocrypha. The difference in opinion between the Roman Church and Jerome regarding what constitute canonicity was to be repeated throughout the history of Christendom. [1]

The Evolution of the Canon

We find that list of canonical books evolved and changed:

  • The earliest Christian list of Old Testament books was that of Melito, Bishop of Sardis, around AD170. His list parallels the Hebrew canon but lacked the books of Esther and Lamentations.
  • From this time onwards the lists of the Church Fathers included the apocrypha. From some ancient Christian Greek manuscripts of the Bible we have today, we can see that up to the fourth century, there was still no agreement as to the complete list of canonical books.
    • The Codex Vaticanus, a fourth century manuscript, includes all the apocrypha except the books of Maccabees.
    • The Codex Sinaiticus, another fourth century manuscript, adds Tobit, Judith and I & II Maccabees to the Hebrew canon.
    • The Codex Alexandrinus, a fifth century manuscripts adds the apocrypha, the Wisdom of Solomon, the Psalms of Solomon, and III & IV Maccabees. [2]

The Current Situation of the OT Canon

The situation is as confused today.
  • During the Reformation, the Protestant leaders refused to accept the apocrypha as inspired works. Martin Luther (1483-1546) did, however, included the apocrypha in the appendix of his German translation of the Bible. The Protestant Churches essentially hold Luther's view on the OT Canon.
  • The Anglican Church views the books of the apocrypha, not as inspired works, but as "example of life and instruction of manners, but not used to establish doctrine".
  • The Roman Catholic Church in the Council of Trent (1548) accepted as inspired eleven of the fourteen books of the apocrypha. It excluded I & II Esdras and the Prayer of Manasses of the apocrypha from the list of canonical books. This decision was reiterated in the First Vatican Council in 1870. Thus the Roman Catholic Old Testament has eleven more books that the Protestant one. [a]
  • The Eastern Orthodox Churches accepted Tobit, Judith, Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon as canonical in the synod at Jerusalem in 1672. Today, the canon of the Eastern Orthodox churches all the books in the Roman Catholic Old Testament and on top of these also includes I Esdras, III Maccabees and the Letter of Jeremiah.
  • The Ethiopian Church has the largest canon of all. Apart from all the books included in the canon of the Eastern Othrodox Churches added I Enoch, Jubilees and Josippon's Medieval History.[3]

NT References to Non-Canonical Texts

This problem is further compounded when we turn to references to the Old Testament by the New Testament authors. The epistle of Jude, for instance, quotes passages, as though they were authoritative from a book that is today not even included in the apocrypha! The book Jude was quoting from is called the book of Enoch [b]. This book was once regarded as proper scripture but was finally lost to the Christian Church. Here is the passage from Jude:

Jude 14-15
It was of these also that Enoch in the seventh generation from Adam prophesied, saying, "Behold, the Lord came with his holy myriads, to execute judgement on all, and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness which they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against him"

This is a direct quotation from I Enoch 1:9.

In Jude verse 9, we see another reference to a non-canonical book that is outside the apocrypha: The Assumption of Moses.

Jude 9
But when the archangel Michael contended with the devil and disputed the body of Moses, he did not dare to bring a condemnation of slander against him but said "The Lord rebuke you!"

Note that Jude wrote as though the verses were authoritative, he did not question the fact the Enoch prophecies may be false or that the event regarding the archangel fighting the devil may be fiction. He mention them as fact, the way a fundamentalist Christian would do today quoting from the Bible.

In another New Testament book, the epistle to the Hebrews (11:37) quotes a passage from another book , The Martyrdom of Isaiah, that is outside the Christian canon. [4]

The obvious lack of agreement between the various Christian churches, and indeed among the early Christians, as to which books were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and are thus canonical, shows that there is no clear cut definition of what constitute sacred scripture.

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a.If you count the number of books you will find that the Catholic Bible has forty six or only seven more than the Protestant one of thirty nine books. What happened to the other four? Well Bel and the Dragan, Song of the Three Children and Susanna are included in the book of Daniel while the additions ot Esther, of course, went into the book of Esther.
b.The Book of Enoch is still accepted by the Ethiopian Church as part of their OT canon.


1.Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p27-28
Parmalee, Guidebook to the Bible: p83
2.Davidson & Leaney, Biblical Criticism: p216
3.Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p27-28
Metzger, Oxford Companion to the Bible: p79
4.Davidson & Leaney, Biblical Criticism: p174, 215-216

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